Beginning the dissertation

Finding a topic

I didn’t expect it, but the journey of finding a dissertation topic was very tumultuous. When I came to Reading, I had thought that it would be the perfect opportunity to do more research on Kaithi. In the course of the months, and after dissertation week in December, I was less and less sure if that is what I wanted to do. In the mean time, I thought it could also be interesting to do a dissertation about intellectual property in typeface design, and how notions of protection and ownership have evolved over time. I almost made up my mind about this topic before being dissuaded by the potentially controversial nature of the subject and difficulties I could face in finding detailed information about recent court cases involving typeface design. All of this meant that by the time we went into the winter break, I was completely topic-less.

During the holidays, I contemplated falling back on my practical project to find a dissertation topic. I considered doing something related to the organization of words in a dictionary, and the concept of alphabetization. Fascinating as the subject was, I couldn’t really find a way to mould it into a dissertation subject.

Of course while this was going on in my head, the deadline for the proposal submission was becoming dangerously close. Before I knew it, it was three days before the submission and I still didn’t have a topic. By this time, I was praying for a miracle. The epiphany happened when I was reading Graham’s Shaw’s article ‘Calcutta: birthplace of the Indian lithographed book’, from the Journal of the Printing Historical Society, No.27. I read like a fiend over the next two days, and identified the ideas that interested me. What did Indians in the nineteenth century think about western books? How would books produced by Indians look like, would they be different? When did a popular “Indian” print culture emerge? I managed to turn in a proposal on time, but to be honest I wasn’t quite satisfied with what I had submitted. It was too general, and I knew I was running of risk of doing a broad survey and not looking into any details at all.

(Re)Writing the proposal

After a few weeks of research, and feedback from Gerry and Fiona, I rewrote my proposal. I have tried to narrow down the topic and make the research questions more specific. I’m still labouring to find a title, and the rather long working title is “Characteristics of the lithographed book, produced by Indians and for Indians, in north India during the 19th century”, but here is the progress I have made so far in defining the restrictions for the subject:

[1] Shaw, Graham (1998) ‘Calcutta: birthplace of the Indian lithographed book’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, Printing Historical Society,  89-111

a. Lithography has been chosen as the only production technique whose output will be studied because it allowed flexible arrangements of text and image; and liberated the printer from the restrictions of metal type, which having been invented for the Latin script, was easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of variation in the height and width of individual glyphs, the ways in which glyphs could be combined, and the size of character sets in other scripts. Lithography also did not require the same expertise or financial investment as setting up a “typographic” press. In fact, it has been credited as having a more far-reaching effect on the vernacular print culture in India than printing with type. [1]

b. The second, “books produced by Indians and for Indians” will allow one to study how the transition from the manuscript tradition to printed book was made in terms of design, layout and organization of information; as well as comment on the difference between the accepted cultural notions about the format, aesthetics and authority of a book in India and the west.

c. The geographical area—the northern part of India that will include cities such as Lucknow, Kanpur, Delhi and Benares—has been chosen not only because it had a fledging lithographic tradition, but because it was a vibrant multi-script society with Hindustani, the spoken tongue, being printed in both the Persian and Devanagari alphabet.

d. Finally, the limitation of time will enable one to focus on a period that saw the evolution of the principles that guided the design of the vernacular book (lithography was introduced in India in 1823). The nineteenth century is also a period of development for popular literary genres in Hindustani, and a growing national movement; this gave an impetus to Indians to engage in printing.



My parents are both from Kanpur (or Cawnpore, as the British called it). I grew up going there for the occasional summer holiday, and finding it worlds apart from Delhi and the life that I was used to. I knew that once upon a time the city was called the Manchester of the East, but by the time I came around to seeing it, it was a shadow of the great industrial city it once used to be.

I remember being about ten, and being completely perplexed when I got a project from school about my hometown. I didn’t quite know what that was. Where was I from? Was I really from Kanpur, a city I did not like? I decided to pretend I was from Agra. It was close enough to Kanpur, and there was lots of interesting history to it. I was being a turncoat, and I knew it.

Imagine my surprise now, when Kanpur keeps cropping up in my dissertation research. There is so much that happened in the city, which I had never known of. Kanpur was home to a branch of the Asiatic Lithographic Company’s Press that was set up in 1830, and the books printed at this press were far from ordinary. This quote from Ulrike Stark’s book, An empire of books, explains,

… even an important landmark such as the date and publication of the first Hindi literary text printed in the Hindi heartland cannot be established with certainty. There is some agreement that the credit goes to a Tulsidas Ramayan issued from the Asiatic Lithographic Company’s Press in Kanpur in 1832. This press has also been credited with printing the first Urdu book in the Urdu-speaking region, an edition of Bagh-o-bahar dating from the same year.

I cannot explain how thrilled I was when I read that. I had to write to my family the moment I saw it. If this does not make me fall in love with the city, I don’t know what will!

(The photograph in this post was found here, via this blog about a movie being conceived to document the story of the cloth mills of Kanpur)

Dr. Samuel Johnson’s House

Before this term started, I visited Dr. Samuel Johnson’s house at Gough Square in London. The house has been preserved as a small museum. One can walk through all the rooms, read about the events and people in his life, and about the making of his famous dictionary. A facsimile of the first edition is in his library and can be browsed. At Gough Square itself, right across his house, there is even a statue of his favorite cat, Hodge, with his famous quote about London inscribed on the plinth—

Sir, when a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.

Even though the definitions in the dictionary are usually precise, some are peculiar. Johnson, it seems, gave himself the liberty of being humorous every now and then. For instance, he defines oats as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”, and a lexicographer as “A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge”.

When I had visited the museum, I was contemplating doing my dissertation about dictionaries and the methods used for sorting of word-lists in them. That plan didn’t quite work out, but it led to some interesting days of reading. Simon Winchester’s thoroughly enjoyable book, The meaning of everything: the story of the Oxford English Dictionary is still on my bedside table!

Twelve select views of the seat of war

After a lot of nervous brain-racking, I submitted my dissertation proposal late last month. It took me longer than I expected to zero in on a subject for my research. Only a week before the submission was due did I have the epiphany (while reading Graham Shaw’s articles) that lithography in India would be an interesting topic to look at, especially in the context of how it affected the notion of a book, and print culture in the country.

During my chat with Twyman about my dissertation, he mentioned that he had a couple of Indian lithographed books in his collection. He was kind enough to bring one of them to the department during his last lecture. The book he got was J. Grierson’s Twelve Select Views of the Seat of War… (the 1824 Anglo-Burmese War) Drawn on Stone by E. Billon and Printed at the Asiatic Lithographic Press, Calcutta 1825, published by the Asiatic Lithographic Press in Calcutta. This book is the earliest example of lithography being employed for pictorial use in India.

Ben and I were especially excited to see the book because we had been talking about it right before we went into Twyman’s lecture. These are some photographs that Ben took of the book (more can be seen on his Flickr page):

Kaithi Handwriting Samples

I was thrilled to find a facsimile of Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India in the university library. Plans to go and see the original at the SOAS library are afoot, but till then I’m happy with this one. I have borrowed the second volume of the fifth part; this is the one that covers the Kaithi script.

The handwriting samples exhibit some deal of regional variation in the shapes of letters, based on the dialect that is being written. Most of the changes in shape look like a function of speed, but some not so much; see the /ṇ/ in the second column of the first row, for instance. The following table (click on the image for larger size) from the book shows the Kaithi alphabet as written by Tirhuti, Bhojpuri and Magahi scribes.

Handwriting Samples
There are handwriting samples that have a continuous headline, and those without; with word spaces, a dash for a word space or without any at all. The first two samples are in the Maithili dialect of Bihari from Darbhanga and Purnea district respectively; next is the Magahi dialect from Patna; and finally, the last two are the Bhojpuri dialect from southern Saran and eastern Gorakhpur.

Type in Transit — No. 23 in London

On my last trip to London, I spent a lot of time on the number 23 from Westbourne Park to Liverpool Street (and Liverpool Street to Westbourne Park), getting down and climbing back on whimsically. Armed with my camera phone and the will to stand next to the information display rather than sit comfortably, I clicked a lot of photographs of the LED letters.

The lowercase letters are five units high. The ascenders and capitals extend two units upwards, and the descenders are two units deep. Every letter space comprises a single unit and word space three units. Here is a selection of images—

Sajou Albums

In his last session of Typographic Delights, Twynman covered the subject of monograms. On exhibit that afternoon were various books on embroidery patterns. Most of these were Sajou Albums from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

I got down to doing what I love to do and like the designs from Lettering for Stitchers, began digitizing the patterns into pixel typefaces on Fontstruct. The going has been slow with Dissertation Week taking up most of my time in the last few days, along with working on my typeface after feedback from the class and from Gerry.

Named in the order of their appearance in this post, the Fontstructions can be downloaded from Sajou I, Sajou II and Sajou III.

Approaching end-of-term

This week was Gerard’s second visit to the department since we started, and things went very well until I encountered my arch nemesis, the lowercase /s/ once again. After spending Friday trying to work it’s design out, I still don’t have an /s/ that doesn’t look like it is falling over, or has weight in all the wrong places!

We had a wonderful early Christmas dinner with Gerard. He was also kind enough to bring chocolate alphabet from the Netherlands to celebrate an early St. Nicholas Day with us.

I began work on the Devanagari typeface that will work along with the Latin. After a lot of tests and some positive feedback, I think I have found a good direction to follow.


Next week, we have intensive sessions to prepare us for approaching our dissertations. I’m looking forward to writing a dissertation with more enthusiasm than seems acceptable. I have two research topics in mind, and I’m equally interested in pursuing both. I can already see that I will be completely torn when I have to choose only one.

End of term is approaching and it will be great to go into the holidays on a positive note, and that means knowing more clearly what I want to achieve with both the practical project and dissertation. It has been good going till now and I hope the next ten days will bring some more answers.

Duncan Forbes’ A Smaller Hindustani and English Dictionary

Following up on the theme of dictionaries from my last post, here is another one. This is Duncan Forbes’ A smaller Hindustani and English Dictionary. It was produced in 1861, about forty years after Shakespear’s dictionary. It does away with problem of multi-script typesetting completely, and is printed entirely in the Latin alphabet. This decision comes with a disclaimer from the author, who writes, ‘It is needless for me to remark that the work is not intended to supersede the Oriental character, a knowledge of which must be ultimately attained by all those who mean to distinguish themselves in Her Majesty’s Indian Service.’

This dictionary also highlights the origin of every word, and distinguishes them as Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Tartarian and Greek, as well as “aboriginal or purely Indian” and those peculiar to Dakhani or to the Deccan.

What I found most interesting are the contractions used to create compound verbs. The system is explained in the preface—

… following contractions are used in the formation of compound words: k, for karnā, “to make;” h, for hōna, “to be, to become;” j for jānā, “to go, to be;” r, for rakhnā, “to keep, to have;” d, for denā, “to give;” l, for lenā, “to take;” , for ḍalnā, “to throw” and b, for bāndhanā, “to bind.”

See them in use in the second entry in the image below.

The same system of compound word formation, in abbreviated form, is also used in the vocabulary section of Eastwick’s A Concise Grammar of Hindustani, which was published three years previously.

John Shakespear’s Dictionary, Hindustani and English

I’ve been looking at Hindi dictionaries to get a sense of the information provided within each entry. Of the dictionaries I’ve looked at, the oldest so far is John Shakespear’s Dictionary, Hindustani and English, which was published in 1817. As the name of the dictionary suggests, it deals with Hindustani (which is not necessarily the Hindi we see in the books of today). Shakespear introduces about this “dialect” and its many names in the preface—

The dialect called zaban-i-urdu, rekhta, hindi or Hindustani, was formed through the intercourse of the Muhammadan invaders of India with the people they found in the country: and though its structure is chiefly Indian, yet the materials of which it is composed are taken abundantly, almost at pleasure, from the Persian, Arabic and other foreign languages, as well as the various dialects peculiar to the Hindus. Being thus derived from many sources, and as a living language, so constructed, liable to continual increase and alteration, it is extremely copious, and very indeterminate both as to the words which may be used and the sense in which many words are adopted.

All headwords are in Perso-Arabic, the meanings in Latin and wherever the word origins are from Sanskrit the word and/or its etymology is repeated in Devanagari. Before every word its origin has also been explained by using the initial letter of the language it comes from.